John Stones is a promising English center back currently playing for Everton, who’s pretty good and has every chance to get better. His talent, youth, potential, position, and Englishness all make him a very hot and very valuable commodity. (Word to Raheem Sterling.) But apparently out of some misguided belief in the talent level of their existing squad—or maybe in a futile attempt to deny their place in the world—Everton are reportedly willing to turn down a small fortune in exchange for the player. Which is really dumb.

Chelsea have been after Stones for awhile this window. According to reports, the bidding started at £20 million, which was rejected; it went up to £26 million, which was also rejected; and most recently it hit £30 million, which was rejected yet again. With each bid Everton reiterated that Stones was not for sale, and with each rejection Chelsea threatened to increase their offer.

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All of this noise put Stones in a tough position. He’s blossomed with all the playing time he’s gotten during his time with Everton these past two and a half seasons, and he won’t get as many minutes right away at Chelsea. For that reason, sticking around another couple years could be in his best interest. On the other hand, if he did make the move, he’d be playing for a perennial EPL and Champions League contender, with a hefty raise, and would project as their central defender of the not-too-distant future, with Gary Cahill and the aging John Terry not looking too hot early on this year. Hence Stones finally requesting that the Toffees accept Chelsea’s next offer.

Everton still aren’t having it, though. Manager Roberto Martínez and club chairman Bill Kenwright have said they have no intention of honoring Stones’ request, not even with Chelsea reportedly lining up a £40 million bid next.

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Taking them at their word—and hopefully Everton have just been playing hardball to ratchet up Stones’ price, and actually will sprint to the bank with Chelsea’s £40 million check once it comes in—the decision to keep hold of the 21-year-old Englishman regardless of the fee doesn’t really make sense. Their thinking probably goes something like this: The season before last we were in with a shout of finishing in the Champions League places up until the final weeks of the season. If the young core we developed then continues to grow, we should be thereabouts soon enough. Plus, this is Everton; why sell our best players when we don’t have to?

This thinking is wrong on a couple of levels. For one, Everton are much closer to last season’s 11th place in the league than they are to the prior year’s overachievement of 5th. That season should be looked at like a fortuitous fluke in their natural cycle of upper-midtable finishes followed by 10th-15th place ones. The current top four are much more solidified now than they were then, and Everton still can’t pretend to be regular competitors with Liverpool and Tottenham as clubs that can (somewhat) legitimately aim to nab the 4th place spot once every few years. With the team Everton have now, they can’t compete at that level.

Which is why cashing in on Stones would be smart. Stones will leave sooner or later, and he’ll never be more valuable than he is right now. He’s in that sweet spot where he’s proven himself a quality player at an age when his growth curve projects further and further upward. Talented young center backs have become one of the most highly coveted assets for clubs over the past couple years, and that, plus the premium placed on English players, plus the fact that they’d be selling to a league rival, makes £40 million a hell of a deal for a prospect of his abilities.

More to the point, this Everton team right now is not good enough to aspire to anything more than a comfortable midtable position. Gareth Barry, Phil Jagielka, and Tim Howard are all hella old key players who are either already or will soon be far past their best. Tony Hibbert, Leon Osman, Arouna Koné, and Steven Pienaar are all hella old key squad players. Few of these players have readymade replacements waiting in the wings.

Kevin Mirallas appears to have fallen out of favor, the team has been lining up with the likes of Tom Cleverley and Koné playing out of position on the wings, and they don’t have a single creative force to serve their two most important attacking players, Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, with the kinds of incisive passes that would make their jobs easier. (And those two won’t be sticking around much longer if all they have to look forward to is finishing a little higher than West Ham every year.) This is a squad that could stand for some significant investment, and since the club (understandably) doesn’t seem to be willing to shell out much more of its own cash to bring in reinforcements, losing one piece to bring in many more is the best hope for long-term success.

As it stands, Everton are looking at the Stones situation in exactly the wrong way. They think that retaining Stones is their best bet to keep the status they’ve acquired over the past couple years; what they should see is an opportunity to build a deeper, better team with the proceeds from a Stones sale so that they avoid the inevitable decline that would come with maintaining the status quo. It might suck to acquiesce to their fate as a feeder club for England’s big fish, but it’s better to attack reality with a clear-eyed strategy for improvement than to stubbornly cling to an attractive illusion were great players are content to wear Everton’s blue for their entire careers.

Photos via Getty

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